This is me in grade three. I was a dark-skinned kid with French speaking parents growing up in a tiny English-speaking town in Southern Ontario. I’d been called an Indian more than a few times by then and for the rest of my life I’d often be recognized as such by white and Indigenous folks alike.
We didn’t really know for sure what our history was. My grandmother talked about growing up on a reserve and there were stories about full ‘Indian’ grandmothers somewhere in our family. Not growing up in the culture I didn’t identify as Indigenous … though it didn’t stop people from making that assumption of me, for better or worse.
As I got older, I felt an affinity for the spiritual side of Indigenous teachings and for the traditional and contemporary work of Indigenous artists. My heart yearned to find my people, so in my naivety I tried for many years to learn on my own. I spoke to Elders who encouraged me and advised me to listen to my blood and walk the land but I was so scared to do it wrong.
In the mid 2000’s, my parents, Marie and Claude Laprise, embarked on their own journey to find their heritage. Records confirmed that we descended from French/Indigenous ancestors from the area in which I was born and raised. They reached out to historians and people in the community and realized that much of their present-day culture was shaped by the traditions and the language of their ancestors on both sides who lived and intermarried in this same area since the 1700’s.
My parents soon became leaders and activists reviving the community called ‘Muskrat Métis’ based on historical and current day cultural activities, food and language. This became a healing journey for many people including my parents, other community members and even people from the local First Nations communities. They formed a family. The community was devastated by the loss of both my parents in 2018 when they passed away within four months of each other. At the memorial the Muskrat Métis community gathered in a circle and softly sang while my sister and I laid their ashes in the river once travelled by our ancestors and where Dad taught all of his grandbabies to fish.
My family has four confirmed direct lines to three ancestral grandmothers dating back to the 1700’s from Huron, Ojibwe and the historical Kaskaskias Nations. Over 400 years, generations of our ancestors made the rivers and marshes at the tip of Southern Ontario their home. I am the product of this community’s cultural ways which developed over centuries. I am also the product of apparently very strong genes which have led me to being identified as Indigenous since childhood.
It's important to remember that when I was growing up, basing Indigeneity on blood quantum was frowned upon by the Métis and Indigenous communities and self-identification was being actively fought for. Groups of Métis and Indigenous people without community connections were forming their own communities in friendship centres and Native Councils. Many lobbied the government to change policy around Métis and Indigenous rights. Until my mid 40's I felt like I was actually being a bad person for not joining the cause. Idle No More had a huge affect on me. And despite never calling myself Indigenous I was being identified as kin more and more often by Indigenous folks. So feeling like I might be a better ally from the inside I finally formally began identifying myself as Métis. But in December of 2020 things got really complicated. While I was aware that Métis Nation had been disputing those communities not descending from the Red River area, including my own, the Muskrat Métis, I wasn’t aware that this would exclude me from formally self-identifying as Métis since my community is active and has proven Indigenous lineage.
I understand the issues surrounding identification are complex and I have so much love and respect for the Métis Nation and all of the Indigenous Nations of Turtle Island. But I also love and respect my Muskrat Métis community which has a long rich history informed by Indigenous and French cultures. Without Red River lineage the only way we could be recognized officially is to create a separate nation. My parents wanted recognition for their community, not separate nationhood. They also never wanted money or land rights. Knowing that they may never be fully embraced, they put their focus on restoring their community in their own way. Admittedly they did some things that, from my perspective, were appropriative and perhaps performative to a certain extent. But I have spent a lot of time with Indigenous people trying to find their way back home and sometimes efforts stray into the performative until a deep understanding happens. I am deeply concerned at how the recent hunt for "race shifters" has created a very scary situation for people like me living in this grey zone. There are people who were embraced by communities for decades that are now being told they don't belong because of blood quantum. That people who choose to honour their ancestors by rebuilding communities are 'necromancers' communing with ghosts. I find this extremely strange since honouring of the ancestors is at the very core of Indigenous teachings. Regardless of whether they were doing it 'right', I admire my parents so much because they left as their legacy a loving and vibrant, inclusive and healthy community who continues to meet and share food, stories and music to this day.
All that said, I am committed to Indigenous sovereignty and understand that my Muskrat Métis community falls in a strange place on that spectrum. And though I don't speak for anyone in my community but myself, I would never want my existence to take from another community. It is for this reason that until my community is either recognized by Métis Nation or is granted its own nationhood, I have vowed to never take funding intended for the Métis Nation or Indigenous Nations, never take up room in spaces dedicated to the Métis Nation or Indigenous Nations, clearly express my heritage as Muskrat Métis and advise all collectors of my art to read this statement so that they may make up their own minds about my heritage and whether its influence on my work is appropriative.
It should be noted that though my style has been compared to contemporary Indigenous painting styles it is actually built from a combination of many historical styles including European painting from the 900's. I enjoy the idea that my highly intellectual training is being married with the my mystical interaction with the land and that the western aesthetic from my European ancestors is co-mingling with the bold colourful style of my Turtle Island ancestors to create something wholly unique. (Read more about my influences here.)
Being a visitor on Mi’kmaq territory I value my role as ally in this community many of whom know my story and continue to embrace me as I am. It is important to understand that the Mi'kmaq Elders of Epekwitk are asking everyone including us allies to share the teachings. And it is my belief from my spiritual interactions with my own ancestors that the blood of the ancestors is rising in all of humankind to listen to the teachings and become stewards of the land so that we can assist and allow Mother Earth to regenerate. This has become my sole focus.
My skin is a reminder of the blood that runs through my veins and thus my art is a reflection of my ancestry, my education and my intense experience on this planet. I am proud of who I am and of the art that I make. I offer these visual ‘stories’ to you from my heart, from those who speak to me from the cosmos and from the Mother who gave birth to all of us.